Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Nabina Das chats with Naren Bedide, writer, translator and commentator in Telugu Dalit literature.

“I am the soldier, I am the battlefield too” Part 1

This is part one of a multiple part interview. Part one focuses on introducing readers to Dalit Poetry.

Q. Imagining that the larger community has little or no idea of "Dalit Literature," tell us something about it.

A. It’s not very difficult to imagine that the larger community has little or no idea of "Dalit Literature." That tells us something about it; that the literature of the former ‘untouchables’ should largely remain untouchable even now, when it is available in such profusion, tells us how desperately the world wants to stand still and hold its breath so that it will go away.

Does this larger community figure in Dalit writing?

The larger community is never absent in the Dalit writer’s imagination. The whole world throbs like a bad tumor in her imagination.

When Yendluri Sudhakar takes a walk in Chicago, he hears Martin Luther King:

When I walk in Chicago
The roar of Martin Luther King's
Word flames
Rings constantly in my ears
Like a chant!

K. G. Satyamurthy ('Sivasagar’) faces death in Jaffna:

Jaffna! Jaffna!! O Jaffna!!

When the night was flying as a vulture
You blew up as a landmine
I died without realizing it
I died in Jaffna.

He is imprisoned in South Africa with Nelson Mandela:

So many prisons
But only one life

He is singing in Tiananmen Square:

The tear drop that splits
On the edge of dark night’s sword:
In the clasp of the gallows
The song that shall wake the sun!

Writes a love letter to Saddam Hussein:

The river Tigris
The Kurdistan hills
The Baghdad streets
The Iraqi grains of sand,
I love
Your love for them.

And he grieves for Santiago:

Santiago! Santiago!
What treachery stabbed you in the back?
What treachery made you stand unarmed before your enemy?
What treachery deprived you of your people’s army?

We can then say that the Dalit poet has a global scope in her work?

The Dalit poet breathes the pain of the wretched and the marginalized in Chicago, Jaffna, Santiago, South Africa, Baghdad and Tiananmen Square as naturally as he inhales the daily treachery, repression, rebellion, seclusion, and defiance of the Dalitwada. Dalitwada is the Dalit settlement outside the village which is always so planned that it can taste even the wind only after it has passed through the village first. The wada which deserves only the leftovers, the remnants, the dregs of everything, including air: who would understand the need for community better?

Who would understand the need for peace and solidarity better than someone who has been engaged in an endless, unequal war she never sought? A war so unequal that generation after generation has to depend solely, and paradoxically, on the enemy itself to sustain its continued participation? Therefore, the wars and unrealized deaths in Jaffna or Santiago or Baghdad or Afghanistan or the Congo or anywhere and everywhere else aren’t unfamiliar to the Dalits in even the most remote, totally-shut-off-from-the-world wadas in India. Because, as Sivasagar says:

Listen! Listen to the untouchable word:
Between the village and the wada
There's a Kargil,
From grandfathers' forefathers' age,
Burning between us;
This Kargil war
Hasn't stopped, it goes on.

The war between the caste village and the caste-less wada is the oldest conflict in the world. But the world still flickers in the Dalit poet’s heart more brightly than any lamp lit across the world in memory of dead soldiers. Pydi Theresh Babu mourns the slow death of a world being consumed by globalization:

Nothing is overtly visible
You can’t hear my breath
In my song
You can’t hear my music
In my procession
You can’t see my play
In my street
You can’t see my ware
In my bazaar

Paradoxes. Contradictions. Why should a Dalit in the wada, who should be happy to be free of the village, embrace the whole world, in such unfettered love?

How do you see these contradictions being resolved?

As Satish Chandar sees it, the Dalit is a revolutionary staking claim over her body, land, spirit and humanity:

My land's not mine, they said,
I became a revolutionary

My body's not mine, they said,
I became a feminist

My village is not mine, they said,
I became a Dalit

She wants a whole new world, nothing less:

Finally,
I am not even human, they said,
Step away
I've become a human bomb.

Dalit literature is as old as the war between the village and the wada. It started within the village and engulfed the wada. The Dalit has to end the war, so that there could be no village or wada. Therefore she can’t other the world and hope for the dissolution of either the village or the wada, or build a new world of equals.

This persistent dialectic to resolve these contradictions has formed the essence of Dalit literature since the very beginning.

Dialectic. That takes us to history.

Over 2,500 years ago, when the Buddha attacked the caste system, he was enacting the role of the first Dalit revolutionary. He was also the battlefield where the idea of a new world had to be fought for, apart from being the warrior who waged battle against the old. That was when anti-caste literature probably first took birth.

What was going on in Telugu literature?

In Telugu, there is enough evidence to suggest that written literature was growing during that age, as evident from inscriptions left by rulers who came in a century or two after the Buddha and also from excerpts in texts such as the ‘Gatha Saptasati’. But it must never have been the language of the ruling classes because for another thousand years or so, there seems to be a near total absence of written texts.
For a thousand years, for all of the first millennium, as votaries of Brahmanic caste ideology worked with great determination to first undermine the political ascendancy of egalitarian Buddhism (and other Shramanic faiths), and then ‘ruthlessly suppress and destroy’ all its institutions, all textual evidence of the vast counter-culture engendered by Buddhism in the various prakrits and regional languages was eliminated. C.R. Reddy, in the foreword to the ‘The History of Telugu Literature’, writes:

The ruthless manner in which Buddhist and Jain literature, in Sanskrit as well as the vernaculars, was suppressed and destroyed through the Brahminical reaction is the greatest tragedy of Indian culture. Today, much of that vast treasure has to be imported from Tibetan and Chinese renderings.

Suppressed would suggest attacks. What did all those pogroms do?

What did all those pogroms do? They left a yawning, unbridgeable gap in the collective consciousness of all the Shudra and ‘Untouchable’ castes in the region. Not just an incomplete sense of history but also of the self itself.

But J. Gautam expresses a more optimistic view:

We are the wounded of a thousand generations
Not those who ever gave up arms,
We are the veteran soldiers of a thousand defeats
Not those who ever surrendered,
We are the sacrificial lambs of a thousand betrayals
Not the cowards who ever strayed from the path,
We are the hardened warriors
Who survived amid a thousand penal codes;
Ours are the thousand and one springs
Among the thousand winters
We're Adivasis
We're women
We're Dalits
We're blacks

Neither the resistance nor the language were totally extirpated, as they resurfaced again when new ruling classes in the beginning of the second millennium started allowing literature in a sanskritised version of the language, mostly penned by the Brahmins, to be circulated again. With the revival of the language, anti-caste ideas breathed a little more easily again. Palkuriki Somanathudu (12th century), a Veerashaiva ideologue, was one of the first poets to speak against caste, again. This was picked up by Vemana (anywhere between 12th and the 17th century) and Veerabrahmam (17th century) in later centuries. Vemana attacked most irrational Brahmanic ritual practices and caste. Here is a small compilation of some of Vemana’s arguments against the upholders of Brahmanic traditions and caste (as quoted in the book ‘Vemana’ by V. R. Narla):

"Can you attain salvation by frequent baths? Well, then all the fishes must be saved. Can you get salvation by smearing yourselves with ashes? Well, then a donkey wallows in ashes. Can you reach corporeal perfection by making a religion out of vegetarianism? Well, the goat scores easily over you. If the son of a Shudra should necessarily be a Shudra, how can you venerate Vasishta as the best Brahmin? Was he not the son of Urvasi, a Shudra woman, although a celestial courtesan? Again, if the husband of an untouchable woman should also be treated as an untouchable, how can you take pride in Vasishta? Was not his wife, Arundathi, an untouchable? When you perform a vedic sacrifice or visit a pilgrim center, a barber sprinkles water on your head to shave it, and a priest to save your soul. None can say how effective is the water sprinkled by the priest, but you have, in a clean-shaven head, clean proof of the effectiveness of the water sprinkled by the barber."

Tell us a little about what the trend was during British rule.

Anti-caste and Dalit literature gathered new courage under colonial rule, because of the spread of western ideas of public education, democracy and citizenship, to whatever limited extent. Dalitbahujan scholar and social activist B. S. Ramulu notes that modern Telugu Dalit literature could be stated to have started around 1850. The new vibrancy in the Dalit articulation of the colonial period is best illustrated by Kusuma Dharmanna’s critique of upper caste nationalism, a frontal attack on the hypocrisy inherent in their demands for self-rule ‘in the poem ‘maakoddii nalla doratanamu’ (‘We don’t want this brown sahibs’ rule’) written in 1921:

With the slogan of self-rule
They fight with the sarkar and demand freedom
But they don't let freedom touch us
They don't let us draw water from the well along with them
They don't allow us into temples and shrines
They cry pollution when a Mala touches them
They say the Malas shouldn't demand rights
If we have no rights, how will we get freedom?
We don't want this brown sahibs' rule
They can't stand the Malas and Madigas*

( Malas and Madigas are the major Dalit, or former ‘untouchable’, castes in the Telugu speaking state of Andhra Pradesh.)

In many ways, Dalit poetry still conveys the moral clarity and fearlessness of speaking truth to power so visible in Dharmanna’s verses. Gurram Jashuva, considered by some as the Yugakartha (‘epoch maker’) of 20th century Telugu poetry, displayed an unstinting commitment to the cause of plight of the Dalits through his long literary career.

This is the end of part one. Come back soon for the next section where we discuss current influences on Dalit poets.